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NT juvenile detention: Brian Martin stands down as royal commissioner

NT juvenile detention: Brian Martin stands down as royal commissioner

The royal commissioner into juvenile justice and child protection Brian Martin has confirmed he will stand down from the inquiry set up by the Turnbull government only last week.

Martin confirmed his intentions at a media conference in Canberra on Monday after reports surfaced that he had become concerned about perceptions of conflict of interest.

He told reporters it had become apparent to him, “rightly or wrongly”, in the days following the establishment of the royal commission that he lacked the confidence of key sections of the Indigenous community.

“As a consequence, the effectiveness of the commission is likely to be compromised from the outset,” Martin said.

“I am not prepared to proceed in the face of that risk. This royal commission is far too important to undertake that risk and, in the public interest, personal considerations must take second place.”

The Turnbull government was expected later on Monday to use the opportunity of Martin’s resignation to emphasise Indigenous inclusion with the process, a move that follows a suggestion from Labor that the government appoint Indigenous co-commissioners to the inquiry.

Over the weekend, the Labor senator Pat Dodson said co-commissioners must be appointed to the commission examining child protection and detention following widespread concern that Indigenous communities had not been consulted adequately in the lead-up to the inquiry being established.

Martin said on Monday his resignation had come at his own initiative, and it was not an admission that he doubted his capacity to be independent, “nor does it imply that I accept that there is or would be a reasonable apprehension of bias.”

Appointed to the inquiry last Thursday, Martin said he had been in the process of formulating plans to consult widely with Indigenous organisations and individuals to aid the conduct of the inquiry.

“Under normal circumstances, I would ignore the nature of the comment and get on with the job. However, as I have emphasised, personal considerations must give way to the overriding importance of ensuring that the royal commissioner has the confidence of key persons and organisations and of the wider community.”

One criticism raised about Martin following his appointment was that his daughter once worked for the Northern Territory attorney general. He said on Monday: “I am not prepared to allow the unwarranted intrusion into the life of my daughter to continue.”

Joanne Martin worked as a justice adviser to the former NT attorney general Delia Lawrie from late 2009 to March 2011, within the period covered by the royal commission.

Lawrie told Sky News she did not work on corrections or child protection, but said any potential concerns about conflict “need to be taken seriously”.

Gerry McCarthy, who was corrections minister during that time, told Sky he could not remember receiving direct advice from Joanne Martin but that his office was then working with the Attorney General’s Department and the chief minister’s office on a reform of corrections, dubbed a New Era in Corrections.

On Friday, Martin said he had discussed his daughter’s employment with the federal attorney general, George Brandis, before being appointed commissioner, “and we were both satisfied that it would not compromise the independence or appearance of independence of the royal commission”.

The territory’s chief minister, Adam Giles, acknowledged Martin’s resignation, saying felt for the former judge.

“It’s hard when people’s families are drawn into public debate,” he said.

Indigenous organisations in the territory criticised Martin’s appointment last week, saying he was too enmeshed in the justice system and that his findings would have no credibility.

Giles’s involvement in setting the terms of reference was also heavily criticized.

Fred Chaney, who was the Indigenous affairs minister under Malcolm Fraser, welcomed Martin’s decision and said it showed “admirable good sense on his part”.

“To have from the outset a royal commission where the Aboriginal community didn’t have confidence would be a waste of time,” he said at the Garma festival in northeast Arnhem Land.

Chaney said the quick decision to announce a royal commission was a good one but the appointment of a commissioner was more difficult and required more time.

“You are trying to satisfy the governments of course that what they’re being told is sensible, you’re trying to satisfy the general community that matters are being addressed, and just as important, perhaps critically important is you’ve got to satisfy the Aboriginal community that unlike so many occasions in their history, that they’re going to get a fair hearing and a fair deal.”

He urged that a choice of replacement be “hastened slowly” and with consultation.

“I think there are some very fine and principled people in the law,” he said, but added: “This is deep personal stuff with a lot of pain and hurt in it, and I think to have an Aboriginal perspective on the enquiry would be immensely enriching of it and make it more likely to succeed.”

The chairman of the Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine, defended Martin on Sky news, saying “if anyone was going to meet the criteria with culture for Indigenous people then he was the guy”.

“What jurist is going to satisfy us?” Mundine said. “We’ve almost got a bullying mob out there now who are not going to be happy unless they get their way.”

Martin has been a stanch advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous customary law in the justice system.

“If you’re going to meet a person who is going to meet that criteria and meet all the stuff that makes people happy, he would have been the guy,” Mundine said.

Martin was chief justice of the supreme court in the NT from 2004 to 2010.

The royal commission has been tasked with looking at child protection and youth detention in the territory under the Youth Justice Act, which has been in place since 2006.

He said on Thursday he could not guarantee he had not sentenced any of the children whose cases may come before the royal commission, but did not perceive that to be a conflict.

Olga Havnen, deputy chair of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT, said appointing Martin commissioner “beggars belief” and said Brandis should have appointed someone from outside the Territory.

Martin’s tenure as chief justice was focused on improving the public perception of the justice system, and he has spoken publicly about the importance of the community having faith in the system.




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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field